By Daniel Rivero @toomuchme
It’s an odd thing to see a musical act perform the same song twice in the same show; least of all when it's the final song of the set. In general, finales are usually left for the “There’s no way they weren’t going to play that song” kind of moments.
Yet somehow when Afro-Cuban-French duo Ibeyi did it Sunday night in Miami, it didn’t feel like a programming error, or even out of place. It was their first performance in the U.S. after a surprise appearance in Beyonce's Lemonade visual album generated them tons of publicity, with some taking notice for the first time.
Rather, the second go-round of the indie hit “River” felt like a self-confirmation. The sisters left its instruments behind, as they bounced to the front of the stage. In lieu of the keyboard and cajón, a stripped down kick and snare version of the single played over a drum machine, while Lisa-Kaindé commanded the sold out crowd: “Do you want to sing with us one last time?”
As the crowd happily chanted the bewitching hook ("Come to the river/ I will come to your river") for the second time of the night, the singular dynamic and appeal of the performers was on full display. Like their songs themselves, the repetition seemed to accentuate the West African-rooted songwriting patterns that have brought the duo such renown. An ancestral, spiraling call and response anthem, set to the music and fashion of 2016. Equal parts spiritual showcase and pop.
As far as crowds go, it was a near homecoming for the group. Unlike most cities they play around the world, the Afro-Cuban santería they so constantly channel is a fixture in the city, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of fellow Cubans that have made their home here. Both sisters shined with delight when they left the mics cold at one point, only to hear some chanting the Yoruban phrases right back to them.
The setup for nearly every song: Lisa-Kaindé dressed in an all black cloak, big hair waving - on the keys and leading the procession with vocals; Naomi with a moño sticking up over what looked like an oversized white labcoat, black pants and heels. The latter straddling the rattling cajón, dancing entranced in the ritual of her own music—definitely the more physical half of the duo.
Through the hour and a half performance, the sisters rode a setlist that saw them twice pay respects to their deceased sister Yanira, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2013, and once to their father, famous Cuban percussionist Angá Diaz. But while haunting and reaching for the other world (“Will we meet in heaven? Meet in heaven?”), the songs don’t verge on the depressing - least of all in a live setting - but rather on the joyous.
A touching rendition of rapper Jay Electronica’s “Better in Tune With the Infinite” set the definitive tone of the night with the lyric, “Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s on the way,” as if saying that yes life is hard, but today something you can do about it. It follows: “The church you pray in it/ the work is on the outside.”
Towards the end of the show, the positive energy they were asking from the crowd seemed like it came to the point where they would have to cash it out. Mid song, the power cut off and the mics went dead. The sisters looked at each other for a mere few seconds before hopping out of their seats up and speaking to the crowd.
“We’re going to improvise,” said Lisa-Kaindé, urging everyone to hush so the people in the back could hear what was about to go down. “We need to be really quiet… It’s going to be a special situation.”
The crowd obeyed, but the mics kicked back right at the same time, leaving us to wonder what the hell was about to happen for the next few tracks.
When Lisa-Kaindé made the announcement that they were closing with “River,” the crowd of over 1,200 went wild, with some throwing red roses onto the stage, one of which she put behind her ear. At one point in the song, she pulled it out, held it towards her dancing sister, and waved it over Naomi’s mid-section as she worked her way down to the toes, Naomi shivering with emotion. Simple as it sounds, the improvised move underscored the reality of the duo.
These aren’t just songs, you are reminded. That they sing in Yoruba—the ceremonial language of santería—isn’t only a call back to fading memories of a far-flung past. This is a lifestyle and a history that, despite its embattled history, is still very much alive.
The second the kicks and the snares of the song faded out, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi made their way backstage.
Instantly, a chant of, “ Otra, otra,” started to raise from the crowd. They didn’t come back out, but we all know—after a despojo like that, they’ll be back. And so will we.